response to the nature-society tension, much more fertile than the return to, or
nostalgia for, nature, can be summed up by the word "culture." It
seems to mean something high, profound, respectable—a thing before which we
bow. It joins nature as a standard for the judgment of men and their deeds but
has even greater dignity. It is almost never used pejoratively, as are
"society," "state," "nation" or even "civilization,"
terms for which culture is gradually substituted, or whose legitimacy is
underwritten by culture. Culture is the unity of man's brutish nature and all
the arts and sciences he acquired in his movement from the state of nature to
civil society. Culture restores the lost wholeness of first man on a higher
level, where his faculties can be fully developed without contradiction between
the desires of nature and the moral imperatives of his social life.
"Culture" in the modern sense was first used by Immanuel Kant, who was thinking of Rousseau when he employed it, particularly about what Rousseau said of the bourgeois. The bourgeois is selfish, but without the purity and simplicity of natural selfishness. He makes contracts hoping to get the better of those with whom he contracts. His faithfulness to others and his obedience to law are founded on expectation of gain: "Honesty is the best policy." Thus he corrupts morality, the essence of which is to exist for its own sake. The bourgeois satisfies neither extreme, nature or morality. The moral demand is merely an abstract ideal if it asks for what nature cannot give. Brutish selfishness would be preferable to sham morality.
progress of culture provides the link between inclination and duty. Kant uses
the education of sexual desire as an example. Naturally man has the desire to
have sexual intercourse and hence to procreate. But he has no desire to care for
his children or educate them, even though the growth of their faculties requires
prolonged maintenance and training. So the family is necessary. But natural
desire does not point to the family. Desire is promiscuous and inclines man
toward freedom. So desire is repressed. Man is commanded to abandon his desire.
He is punished for it. Myths are created that haunt him, make him feel guilty
and persuade him that he is sinful because of his natural desires. Marriage
constrains both parties, and faithless deeds as well as desires habitually
accompany it. In spite of all of society's machinery, untamed desire is always
there. It is natural. It can be pushed down, but never completely, and it always
has its revenge in one way or another.
A man in this condition can never be happy. But a man who is deeply in love with a woman both desires and, for the moment at least, really cares for another. If this latter condition can be made permanent, desire and morality practically coincide. The free choice of marriage and the capacity to stick to it, not merely outwardly but also inwardly, is a proof of culture, of desire informed by civility. It is also the proof of human freedom, of the overcoming of nature for the sake of morality, without making man unhappy. The exclusive preference for one person whose attraction is founded on ideas of beauty and virtue unknown to natural man makes sex sublime or sublimates it. This is love, and love seeks expression in poetry and music. Thus sublimated, sexual desire culminates in art. The children who are love's products make reflection about education necessary. And the family, its rights and its duties, its legal basis and its protection, finally connect what was once an isolated individual, concerned only with himself, to politics. Love, family and politics, which previously divided man and trapped him, can now be ordered in such a way as to fulfill and enhance natural desire and can therefore be unambiguously affirmed by the will. He is his own master again, but social or related to other men without being alienated by them. He is neither promiscuous nor repressed, because his sexual passion is fully expressed and satisfied. Both the world of nature and that of society are fulfilled. His intellectual acquisitions are not just extrinsic adornments but harmoniously serve and enrich his life. Such is the ideal of culture so far as j sexual matters are concerned. Something of the kind must occur in all the aspects of man's life in order to produce a personality, the fully cultured human being.
This Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher than nature is found in man.
It should be noted that sex is a theme hardly mentioned in the thought underlying the American Founding. There it is all preservation, not procreation, because fear is more powerful than love, and men prefer their lives to their pleasures. This subordination or taming of the sexual and everything connected with it made it easier for society to satisfy nature's most powerful demands. The rehabilitation of sex made society's task more difficult and placed different demands on it. The primacy given to the sexual instinct in later modern thought as opposed to the preservative instinct among the early moderns accounts for much of the drama of our intellectual life, and for the varying expectations from social life. We are back to our economist and psychiatrist.
But what is the relation between Kant's use of the word culture and ours? It seems there are two different current uses that, while distinct, are linked. First, culture is almost identical to people or nation, as in French culture, German culture, Iranian culture, etc. Second, culture refers to art, music, literature, educational television, certain kinds of movies—in short, everything that is uplifting and edifying, as opposed to commerce. The link is that culture is what makes possible, on a high level, the rich social life that constitutes a people, their customs, styles, tastes, festivals, rituals, gods—all that binds individuals into a group with roots, a community in which they think and will generally, with the people a moral unity, and the individual united within himself. A culture is a work of art, of which the fine arts are the sublime expression. From this point of view, liberal democracies look like disorderly markets to which individuals bring their produce in the morning and from which they return in the evening to enjoy privately what they have purchased with the proceeds of their sales. In culture, on the other hand, the individuals are formed by the collectivity as are the members of the chorus of a Greek drama. A Charles de Gaulle or, for that matter, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn sees the United States as a mere aggregate of individuals, a dumping ground for the refuse from other places, devoted to consuming; in short, no culture.
Culture as art is the peak expression of man's creativity, his capacity to break out of nature's narrow bonds, and hence out of the degrading interpretation of man in modern natural and political science. Culture founds the dignity of man. Culture as a form of community is the fabric of relations in which the self finds its diverse and elaborate expression. It is the house of the self, but also its product. It is profounder than the modern state, which deals only with man's bodily needs and tends to degenerate into mere economy. Such a state is not a forum in which man can act without deforming himself. This is why in the better circles it always seems in poor taste to speak of love of country, while devotion to Western, or even American, culture is perfectly respectable. Culture restores "the unity in art and life" of the ancient polis.
The only element of the polis absent from culture is politics. For the ancients the soul of the city was the regime, the arrangements of and participation in offices, deliberation about the just and the common good, choices about war and peace, the making of laws. Rational choice on the part of citizens who were statesmen was understood to be the center of communal life and the cause of everything else. The polis was defined by its regime. Nothing of the kind is to be found in culture, and just what defines a culture is extremely difficult to discern. Today we are interested in Greek culture, not Athenian politics. Thucydides' version of Pericles' Funeral Oration is taken to be an archetypical expression of that culture, a splendid evocation—in the context of a religious ceremony—of Athenian love of beauty and wisdom. This interpretation makes some sense; but it is nonetheless a misreading; it is supposed to enrich us but it only confirms us in our prejudices, typical of our utter dependence on German interpretations of Greek things. Actually Pericles says nothing about the gods, or the poetry, history, sculpture or philosophy of which we think. He praises Athens' regime and finds beauty in its political achievement—its regime, and particularly its tyrannically held empire. The Athenians are the political heroes who surpass those in Homer, and the arts are implicitly understood to be imitations and adornments of that heroism. But we find what we look for, and do not see any of this. A Pericles thus interpreted would be too superficial for us.
The disappearance of politics is one of the most salient aspects of modern thought and has much to do with our political practice. Politics tends to disappear either into the subpolitical (economics) or what claims to be higher than politics (culture)—both of which escape the architectonic art, the statesman's prudence. Politics in the older sense encompassed and held together these two extremes. This opposition between economy and culture is but another formulation of the dualism in contemporary American intellectual life that keeps recurring in these pages and is their unifying theme.
The source can be found in one of the most remarkable passages in Rousseau's works, which marks the break with early modern statecraft and was decisive in the development of the idea of culture. It is his chapter on the Legislator in The Social Contract (II, 7). Rousseau directed men's attention back to the ancient polis as a corrective to the Enlightenment political teaching. Unlike many of those who came after him, he was hardheadedly political and saw statesmen's deeds as central to the life of a people. And it is precisely the very conditions for the existence of a people that Rousseau accuses his immediate predecessors of having misunderstood or ignored. Individual self-interest is not sufficient to establish a common good, he insists, but without it, political life is impossible, and men will be morally contemptible. The founder of a regime must first make a people to which the regime will belong. A people will not automatically result from individual men's enlightenment about their self-interest. A political deed is necessary. The legislator must
so to speak change human nature, transform each individual, who by himself is a
perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a greater whole from which that
individual as it were gets his life
and his being; weaken man's constitution to strengthen it; substitute a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence which we have all received from nature. He
must, in a word, take man's own forces away from him in order to give him forces which are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others. The more the natural forces
are dead and annihilated, the greater and more lasting the acquired ones, thus the founding is solider and more perfect; such that if each citizen is nothing, can do nothing, except by all the
others, and the force acquired by the whole is equal or superior to the sum of the natural forces of all the individuals, one can say that the legislation is at the highest point of perfection it
with characteristic and refreshing frankness underlines the corporate character
of the community and what is required to achieve it as over against the abstract
individualism popularized by the Enlightenment. In elaborating the scheme
Rousseau even puts in the popular festivals and all that. This complex nervous
system constructed by the legislator is exactly what we call culture. Or rather,
culture is the effect of the legislation without the legislator, without the
Rousseau's theoretical frankness, or harshness, about legislation put off succeeding generations of thinkers, who nonetheless wanted the results of that harshness, i.e., community. Or, more likely, Robespierre's practical harshness and the failure of his attempt at legislation scared off moderate observers. Changing human nature seems a brutal, nasty, tyrannical thing to do. So, instead, it began to be denied that there is such a thing as human nature. Rather, man grows and grows into culture; cultures are, as is obvious from the word, growths. Man is a culture being, not a natural being. What man has from nature is nothing compared to what he has acquired from culture. A culture, like the language that accompanies and expresses it, is a set of mere accidents that add up to a coherent meaning constitutive of man. Nature is gradually banished from the study of man; and the state of nature is understood to have been a myth, even though the notion of culture is inconceivable without the prior elaboration of the state of nature. The primacy of the acquired over the natural in man's humanity is the ground of the idea of culture; and that idea is bound up with the idea of history, understood not as the investigation into man's deeds but as a dimension of reality, of man's being. The very fact of movement from the state of nature to the civil state shows that there is history and that it is more important than nature. In Rousseau the tension between nature and the political order is maintained, and the legislator has to force the two into a kind of harmony. History is a union of the two in which each disappears.
Now, Rousseau, for all the adaptations made by the legislator, in order for his legislation to suit particular times and places, was still pursuing the same universal goal as were the thinkers of the Enlightenment: to secure the equal natural rights of all men within civil society. He simply argued that Hobbes and Locke did not succeed in doing so, that self-interest is not enough to found political morality on. The political solution was more complicated and demanding. Kant, who invented culture as part of a historical teaching, also had a similar universal goal. Although natural rights had become human rights in his teaching, those rights were the same ones, founded on a new basis; and the historical process he discerned in Rousseau's teaching moved toward the effective establishment of those rights in civil society. Universality and rationality were the hallmarks of all these teachings. But very quickly culture—which was for Kant and, speaking anachronistically, for Rousseau, singular—became cultures. That there were Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and Chinese was clear. That there is a cosmopolitan culture, either existing or coming into being, is unclear. The various unions of nature with the acquisitions of civilization are rare and difficult enough; that they should tend to the same end is improbable; we should cherish these creations and be happy that there is any culture at all. A charm was discovered in this diversity. Rousseau introduced rootedness as a condition of attaining the simple rational human goal. His historicist and romantic successors argued that such a goal undermined rootedness; rootedness became the goal.
Here again we live with two contradictory understandings of what counts for man. One tells us that what is important is what all men have in common; the other that what men have in common is low, while what they have from separate cultures gives them their depth and their interest. Both agree that life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, i.e., the interests of health and preservation, are what men share. The difference between them is the weight they give to being French or Chinese, Jewish or Catholic, or the rank order of these particular cultures in relation to the natural needs of the body. One is cosmopolitan, the other is particularistic. Human rights are connected with one school, respect for cultures with the other. Sometimes the United States is attacked for failing to promote human rights; sometimes for wanting to impose "the American way of life" on all people without respect for their cultures. To the extent that it does the latter, the United States does so in the name of self-evident [truths that apply to the good of all men. But its critics argue that there are no such truths, that they are prejudices of American culture. On the other hand, the Ayatollah was initially supported by some here because represented true Iranian culture. Now he is attacked for violating human rights. What he does is in the name of Islam. His critics insist that there are universal principles that limit the rights of Islam. When the critics of the U.S. in the name of culture, and of the Ayatollah in the name human rights, are the same persons, which they often are, they are persons who want to eat their cake and have it, too.
Why, it might be asked, can't there be a respect for both human rights and culture? Simply because a culture itself generates its own way of life and principles, particularly its highest ones, with no authority above it. If there were such an authority, the unique way of life born of its principle would be undermined. The idea of culture was adopted precisely because it offered an alternative to what was understood to be the shallow and dehumanizing universality of rights based on our animal nature. The folk mind takes the place of reason. There is a continuing war between the universality of the Enlightenment and the particularity that resulted from the teachings of Enlightenment's critics. Their criticism appealed to all the old attachments to family, country and God that were uprooted by Enlightenment, and gave them a new interpretation and a new pathos. Such criticism provided a philosophic basis for resisting philosophy.
The question is whether reasonings really take the place of instincts, whether arguments about the value of tradition or roots can substitute for immediate passions, whether this whole interpretation is not just a reaction unequal to the task of stemming a tide of egalitarian, calculating individualism, which the critics themselves share, and the privileges of which they would be loath to renounce. When one hears newly divorced persons extolling the extended family, unaware of all the sacred bonds and ancestral tyranny that it required in order to exist, it is easy to see what they think is missing from their lives, but hard to believe they are aware of what they would have to sacrifice to achieve it. When one hears men and women proclaiming that they must preserve their culture, one cannot help wondering whether this artificial notion can really take the place of the God and country for which they once would have been willing to die.
The "new ethnicity" or "roots" is just another manifestation of the concern with particularity, evidence not only of the real problems of community in modern mass societies but also of the superficiality of the response to it, as well as the lack of awareness of the fundamental conflict between liberal society and culture. This attempt to preserve old cultures in the New World is superficial because it ignores the fact that real differences among men are based on real differences in fundamental beliefs about good and evil, about what is highest, about God. Differences of dress or food are either of no interest or are secondary expressions of deeper beliefs. The "ethnic" differences we see in the United States are but decaying reminiscences of old differences that caused our ancestors to kill one another. The animating principle, their soul, has disappeared from them. The ethnic festivals are just superficial displays of clothes, dances and foods from the old country. One has to be quite ignorant of the splendid "cultural" past in order to be impressed or charmed by these insipid folkloric manifestations (which, by the way, unite the meanings of culture—people and art). And the blessing given the whole notion of cultural diversity in the United States by the culture movement has contributed to the intensification and legitimization of group politics, along with a corresponding decay of belief that the individual rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence are anything more than dated rhetoric.
The idea of culture was established in an attempt to find the dignity of man within the context of modern science. That science was materialistic, hence reductionist, and deterministic. Man can have no dignity if his status is not special, if he is not essentially different from the brutes. There must be something else in man to account for the fullness of his being and prevent political and economic arrangements that presuppose his brutishness from reducing him to it. Those who attempted to establish the dignity of man did not hope or try to transform the new natural science. It was a question of coexistence. They invented dualisms with which we still live—nature-freedom, nature-art, science-creativity, natural science-humanities—in which the latter term of the pair is supposed to be of higher dignity, but the groundedness of which has always turned out to be problematic. Freedom is a postulate, a possibility in Kant, not a demonstration; and that remains the difficulty. Culture, although it claims to be comprehensive, to include all of man's higher activities, does not really include natural science, which did not need the notion, which was doing just fine in the older democratic arrangement it had helped to found, and by which it was encouraged. Psychology today includes an important school for which man is nothing other than a brute, e.g., B. F. Skinner's behavioralism; another in which the fact that man is an animal practically disappears, e.g., Jacques Lacan's existential analysis; and various incoherent mixtures, e.g., Freud's psychoanalytic theory, which wants found itself on biology and at the same time to account for spiritual phenomena, to the detriment of both. In general, everyone wants to be scientific and at the same time to respect the dignity of man.
Alan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind, New York, 1987, pp. 185 -